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How Alphabet Inc. Is Pushing (Successfully) for Autonomous Car Laws

By Motley Fool Staff – Feb 20, 2016 at 12:02PM

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After petitioning the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Alphabet has convinced the agency to recognize the software of autonomous vehicles as a legal “driver.”

It almost goes without saying that self-driving cars have the potential to change the world. But before that happens, existing transportation laws will have to be modified significantly in order to accommodate them.

In this clip, Sean O'Reilly and Vincent Shen talk about why Alphabet (GOOGL -1.82%) (GOOG -1.98%) is lobbying government agencies to change their definition of a "driver." They also discuss the areas new transportation laws will have to cover before autonomous cars can drive us to work every morning.

Listen to the full podcast by clicking here. A full transcript follows the video.

This podcast was recorded on Feb. 11, 2016. 

Sean O'Reilly: All this autonomous car stuff, driverless car stuff, it requires regulations. We just got a big update there, by the way.

Vincent Shen: Yes. So, I'm really excited to talk about this topic. It's not something that we would usually cover on our consumer show, of course. And, before we get into some of the companies and the technologies and the innovation that's happening in this space, there is of course, the regulatory framework. And there's a big update recently being pushed by Google, actually. Basically, Google is obviously very well-known for pushing a lot of these self-driving car efforts. They've been petitioning the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to basically reevaluate how it defines a driver. The idea being, while some companies are approaching the self-driving car where they're still giving it a steering wheel, brake pedals and things along those lines, where the riders can still operate the car, Google is envisioning it where there's none of that, and the car is truly...

O'Reilly: It's literally just a pod or something.

Shen: Exactly. And, as a result, they want to petition the government to consider the fact that, in those instances where there is no steering wheel, and that person is just getting into this pod like you mentioned, the driver is considered the software, and not the rider.

O'Reilly: So, I'm sure that what just popped into our listeners' minds, because it popped into my mind immediately, was: What happens in the event of a fatality or something? Is it just an act of God? Or what?

Shen: This is where, I think, a lot of laws and rules are going to need to be rewritten, exempted, waived, or just changed to try and catch up with the technology. All this decision really came out as basically, the Traffic Safety Administration agreed with what Google was petitioning...

O'Reilly: Wow.

Shen: this instance. But there's still a lot of work to do, obviously. So, in those instances, where you mentioned like, there's a fatality, for example, that is ultimately the main focus of these companies, where they see the benefits of these cars and this technology, of making driving safer, reducing congestion, and also potentially having a lot of environmental benefits as well, and way more than that actually, as we get into it. The thing is, there's going to be, obviously, a really long fight ahead to create all of those exemptions, the exceptions, and necessary rules to adapt for this. But on that note, I will say that Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx commented earlier this year -- I think it was at the Auto Show, the big Detroit Auto Show -- his department is really supportive of this technology. And he's stated that he would actually consider speeding up the process or even waiving some rules in order to help get these cars on the road, assuming they could pass all the safety tests and things along those lines.

O'Reilly: The reasoning being that the benefits outweigh the potential downsides?

Shen: Yeah. If the technology is proven, and they can drive safely. When you remove elements like people being distracted, texting on the phone, or things along those lines, or just aggressive drivers, when you can remove some of those elements...

O'Reilly: Well, is it true that... I heard that Google's autonomous cars that they've been testing, they've been in a few accidents, but they were all human errors or something?

Shen: Yeah, from the other party. That's generally what I've heard as well.

O'Reilly: Yeah. It's like, well, if every car on the road is an autonomous car, and they're all talking to each other, I mean, I would have to assume auto fatalities alone would go down like 99% or something. So, OK. Obviously, your answer to my question earlier, it sounds like they don't have actual rules written for when a fatality happens?

Shen: No, no, of course not. So, this is just kind of moving in that direction, where you can see that they are making some progress, and it seems like, in terms of the government, they are supportive of these efforts, and they are generally trying to work with automakers, technology companies, and building out this technology together.

O'Reilly: So, the conversation has begun, wait and see, but if the government is on board, that's obviously bullish.

Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Sean O'Reilly has no position in any stocks mentioned. Vincent Shen has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A and C shares). Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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